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What’s the difference between brand ‘differentiation’ and ‘distinctiveness’? And does it matter?

A red umbrella among many black umbrella
Stand out

For decades differentiation has been the touchtone of brand positioning. Together with relevance, the two attributes have traditionally formed the cross-hairs of successful brand positioning and communications. More recently, distinctiveness has been referenced by an increasing number of strategists as an important attribute. As a result, it is argued, the former pre-eminence of differentiation has dimmed somewhat, at least by comparison. What is behind this new thinking? How important is it, and how do the two attributes compare and contrast with each other?

First of all, it helps to travel back briefly to the early days of FMCG brands and the classic Mad Men advertising campaigns. In the 1950s and 60s there were relatively fewer major consumer brands, usually from the large brand houses such as P&G, Unilever and others. The primary task of marketing was to demonstrate their products unique selling points (USP), be that the effectiveness of a laundry detergent, the reliability of a washing machine, or any other performance claim.

Over time these USPs were inevitably matched or exceeded by competitors. As more competitors entered the market, offering essentially ‘me-too’ products, achieving relevant differentiation became the primary objective of brand strategy. As USP’s lost relevance the ‘Big Idea’ become the pre-eminent aim of marketing and advertising – the authentic cowboy taste of a Marlborough cigarette, the ‘Friendly skies’ of United or M&M’s ‘melts in the mouth, not in your hand’ for example. The conventional wisdom was to find a ‘big idea’ that could be ‘owned’ and that stood out memorably against competitors. Ironically, in many ways, this is the origin of ‘distinctiveness’ in many respects, as it is increasingly expressed today.

The problem with differentiation on its own is that, in a sea of competitive products, each differentiated in some small way, it becomes increasingly difficult for any individual product to stand out from the crowd. Hence the importance of combining differentiation with relevance to make the brand ‘pop’ up above the fray.

Matrix to measure effectiveness of brand positioning
Brand Relevance and Differentiation

Fast forward to today and the emergence of distinctiveness as a key brand attribute is all about creating saliency and getting noticed by consistently applying distinctive brand codes. First championed by Byron Sharp* and others, in essence ‘distinctiveness’ is how a brand looks, feels, presents itself and stands out from the crowd.

This triggers stored expectations, familiarity, trust, and anticipation. Over time, accumulated brand codes and experiences create saliency and attract new customers’ attention as well as brand loyalty from existing customers. Coca-Cola and its distinctive classic bottle are often cited as an example of brand distinctiveness, not least with its iconic, waisted bottle. It’s not difficult to think of other brands that similarly embody a set of brand codes which are consistently applied across all communication touch-points and throughout the customer journey. Tiffany, Absolute Vodka, Nike or McDonald’s, for example.

Distinctiveness has another important merit in its favour. Unlike differentiation per se, it is legally defendable in court. Hence any investment in brand distinctiveness should directly build sustainable brand equity and a permanent set of properties that can be legally protected.

So, is distinctiveness then the new touchstone for branding?

Yes and no… Certainly in low-risk small-ticket purchases, customers rarely think about differentiation in too much detail. Instead the purchase decision is often driven by habit or familiarity. For these sort of purchases distinctiveness is usually the most appropriate strategy. However, the decision journey in B2B transactions are not sentiment based and they seldom rely on familiarity with the brand. Instead of brand awareness and affinity, the concern is capability, track-record, reputation and trust. And of course, cost. The decision process between buying an Apple Mac vs. and an ERP system is fundamentally different and saliency plays very little role in B2B or high-risk purchase decisions. Similarly, big ticket purchases, such as a car, a house, an MBA education, or an investment fund are not influenced by saliency. These decisions require careful consideration and selection. Such choices are highly personal and the consequences of making a poor decision are great. The selection process is considered and differentiation is important.

Another category where distinctiveness comes up short against differentiation is in services marketing. Few banks, for example project any distinctive brand assets or codes, beyond their HQ building and perhaps the design of their priority banking lounges. The same can be said for financial services, Pharmaceuticals or airlines (with the possible exception of Virgin Atlantic). The list goes on. In essence, the higher the involvement in the purchase decision and the greater the stake in selecting the best option, the less distinctiveness is important and the more relevant differentiation matters.

Finally, differentiation has one other advantage over distinctiveness, in that it places the customer segment at the core of the value proposition and positioning. It is about market’s needs, not producers’ specialness. This seeks to precisely address a specific segment’s needs with a targeted value proposition that presents their product or service as differentiated in such a way that ideally addresses them. Conversely, distinctiveness takes a passive approach, based around projecting the product and consistent visual messaging at all times and throughout the customer journey.

So what’s the bottom line?

In a nut shell, saliency is an effective approach for low-risk purchase decisions, particularly in fmcg / packaged goods and habitual purchases. More involved purchase decisions, B2B, finance and professional services, will likely benefit more from a differentiation strategy. And a few may benefit from both.

Will this be the final say in the evolution of brand theory? Don’t bet upon it. The half-life of most new trends is measured in years rather than decades. After all, there’s a lot of money to be made by throwing out the old, and replacing it with the new, preferably with a catchy buzz-word or two to speak about at marketing conferences.


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